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Pressing questions for wild-card playoff weekend: Can anyone stop the red-hot Ravens?

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1 - How can anyone hope to stop this version of the Ravens?

Since Lamar Jackson returned from the COVID-19 reserve list, the Baltimore Ravens’ offense has looked eerily similar to the overpowering unit from their historic 2019 run.

The ground game has been punishing to the tune of a beastly 267.4 rushing yards per game. It ended the season on a sky-high note with 404 yards.

But the ground game has always been dangerous this season. Not quite this potent but it has been the team’s strength. What has changed for the Ravens, however, since their early season slump is that Jackson and the passing game are fully En Fuego.

Jackson sports a 115.8 passer rating, 8.9 adjusted yards per attempt, and an insane 11 percent touchdown rate since Week 13. He has also taken just five sacks (one per game). Those are passing numbers that rival his MVP season’s efficiency marks. And of course, it’s just the base of an ice cream sundae, which also features 430 yards and four touchdowns as the cherry on top.

When Lamar Jackson’s full story is written — when his playing days are done — one of the more impressive chapters will be his play in the final days of 2020. The former MVP guided what looked like a ship lost at sea out of a huge COVID outbreak all the way to a 5-0 run. He vaulted Baltimore to a playoff appearance that in early October looked to be anything but guaranteed.

That’s what top-end players do. The Ravens have that type of player in Lamar Jackson. That alone makes them as dangerous as anyone in the AFC this side of Kansas City.

Before you harken too hard on the quality of opponents Baltimore ran through in Weeks 11 to 17, take a gander at the defensive metrics for Tennessee. The Titans rank 30th in pass-defense DVOA and have no hope of constructing a pass rush. The run defense is not much better.

Can Tennessee outscore the Ravens? That is possible. All season the Titans have been one of the most efficient and versatile offenses in the NFL. That alone is their path to victory in wild-card weekend.

Because they cannot stop the Ravens. When Jackson and the scoring unit is playing at their peak, few teams remaining in the postseason scrum can hope to slow them down.

2 - Is Washington’s pass rush enough?

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Washington Football Team pulls off an upset of the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The latter team was too good to end the season to imagine it’ll fall to the NFC East champ. Especially if it comes down to a point-by-point affair.

A Washington offense that’s giving Taylor Heinicke first-team reps in practice keeping up with the Tom Brady-led attack that we watched at the close of the regular season? Good luck.

If Washington is to pull off the upset, it’ll be because its pass rush dominated the day. It’s not a unique analysis. You could have come to this conclusion without my help, but it’s reality.

Brady hasn’t been perfect in his first year with Tampa Bay but overall, he has been extremely precise. That’s especially true when he gets protection. When he is kept clean, Brady has a 115.1 passer rating. He has been kept clean (per PFF) on 75.6 percent of his dropbacks, the fourth-highest mark among starting quarterbacks.

It’s as cliche as it gets, but if your defense can’t get near Tom Brady, you’re cooked.

On the other hand, Brady has a 54.5 passer rating with a 4:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio when under pressure. It’s a bottom-10 passer rating among starting quarterbacks.

So, if Washington’s defense takes over the game, it can knock Brady off his path. But that needs to amount to holding the Bucs under 23 points. It’s hard to imagine The Football Team amassing more of a fight. Tampa Bay’s defense, especially a coverage-blowing-prone secondary, has enough weaknesses for budding stars like Terry McLaurin or Logan Thomas to make a handful of big plays. However, we saw that take place in Week 17 and they barely skated by a significantly depleted Eagles team. The Football Team will need more than just that if it hopes to pull off an upset on wildcard-weekend.

3 - Are the Steelers really over their offensive slump?

Recent evidence — well, an admittedly minuscule sample — would suggest that the Steelers’ offense is a unit to be reckoned with. That is how it should have been from Weeks 1 through 17. However, we know that’s not what happened.

After twisting in the wind as a dysfunctional offense for over a month, the unit came alive in the second half of a Week 16 win over the Colts. Ben Roethlisberger was slinging the ball downfield to all three of his top receivers in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster. He was making throws we didn’t believe he was capable of anymore.

It’s not hyperbole to say that what we saw out of Roethlisberger in Week 16 legitimately increased the high-end of his range of outcomes. Whether he can do that routinely over the course of a full-game or much less over the course of a multi-week playoff run is another question. Again, we know he can make a single downfield throw. That was truly in question a few weeks ago.

Week 17 also showed us another crucial truth: The Steelers have good wide receivers (we knew that) capable of winning downfield.

With Mason Rudolph under center, Johnson averaged 25.8 air yards per target and Claypool 19.4. Both guys cleared 20 yards per catch. If people just looked at Johnson’s yards per catch figure and believed he had no downfield route-running chops you’d have to assume they’ve never popped a second of game film on in their life. Smith-Schuster still garnered mostly low aDOT targets but averaged over 4 yards after the catch per reception.

So, if Roethlisberger has revealed he is indeed capable of unfurling balls downfield and his receivers are capable of catching them, it stands to reason that they’re an offense to fear ... when they’re clicking. If the passing game we’ve seen over the past six quarters rolls into the postseason, they’ll win a few games.

4 - How do the Colts dodge the Bills’ buzzsaw?

It’s tough to imagine anyone slowing down Buffalo. The Bills have been a juggernaut in the last quarter of the season and have one of the most dangerous groups all season.

The Colts’ best chance to slow down their arsenal is the only mildly tried-and-true method of using the running game to keep Buffalo off the field.

Luckily for Indianapolis, the final chapter of 2020 revealed it has one of the most dangerous running games in football. From Week 11 on, rookie Jonathan Taylor was completely dominant. He rushed for 741 yards at over 6 yards per carry. He accounted for 140.5 yards from scrimmage per game and scored eight times. It was a huge closing act from Taylor.

The Bills’ defense has improved since their early season struggles, ranking eighth in weighted DVOA by Football Outsiders (accounts for more recent performances). However, if they can be had anywhere, it’s on the ground. Despite dominant wins, Buffalo gave up 140 yards to the Broncos and 145 yards to the Patriots in Weeks 15 and 16. If Taylor can rip this defense early for a few big runs, that will go a long way toward Indy setting the tone it’ll need for an upset.

5 - Will either offense shine in the NFC West rematch?

If someone told you in September that the Rams and Seahawks would be facing off in the postseason, you’d have been prepared to tuck into a fun offensive barn-burner. You know by now that’s not what we can reasonably project between these two teams.

The two units that will take the field Saturday are nothing like the two teams that dominated efficiency metrics in the opening weeks of 2020.

The Rams’ quarterback situation remains up in the air, with some even calling for John Wolford to get another shot regardless of what happens with Jared Goff’s thumb. Even if the backup gave them an intriguing edge as a rusher in his Week 17 start, that seems a bit much.

The Seahawks have remained mostly stuck in the mud in the second half of this season. An eruption could always be waiting for one of their players, as Tyler Lockett experienced in Week 17, but wishing for a full passing game turnaround feels foolish at this point. That’s especially true against Los Angeles, whose defense is perfectly constructed to slow down an overly vertical offense like Seattle.

The Rams give up a 58 passer rating on 15-plus-yard throws over the middle of the field, a 15 rating on the right, and 46 on the left. All three marks are way better than the average defensive performance.

On the other side of the field, Seattle’s defense has rocketed up the rankings late in the season. The unit that took the field in the final four weeks featured a ferocious pass rush with just enough players who can create havoc at linebacker and safety. Jamal Adams says he’s a full-go too, despite questions about his shoulder injury status. That’s just more chaos this team can bring into the game.

Frankly, this feels like a defensive slugfest. The game sports a 42.5 over/under and that feels about right. Forget the offenses and all the many talented players you once relied upon in fantasy football.

The winner of this NFC West rematch will be decided by defense.

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